LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® in Higher Education by Prof. Alison James

While LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® has been well established for more than two decades in corporate and organisational settings, it has particularly grown in prominence in higher education in the last ten years. This has been due to a number of factors, among them an increase in creative, alternative and multisensory approaches to teaching and learning. When I talk about higher education here, I mean all kinds of formal tertiary level provision; in universities and colleges, specialist institutions, professional development and other equivalent settings.

While there are several books on using the method in corporate and business contexts, my focus here is on LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® in higher education.  I will only offer a few brief indications, as the range and scope of use is both limitless, and the full extent unknown. We also offer a bibliography and links to other resources in our intensive LSP in HE facilitator training course. I hope that the following suggestions will be useful, whatever your level of experience with the method.

Before our program starts, we always suggest some pre-reading by the co-inventors of the method, Professors Johan Roos and Bart Victor. They have published widely on their journey creating, testing, revising and using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®.  Irrespective of professional sector, their paper How It All Began gives an excellent overview of their research process in developing the method; its genesis, iterations, and theoretical basis.

Along with wanting to know about the origins of the method, a next step might be looking to see who else is using it in HE. A Google search will offer you accounts from around the world, where participants describe their first encounters with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. If you like, it is their version of how it all began for them. (In this recent podcast for the Association for the Advancement of Computing Education I also share a bit of my own how-I-began-with-play story, and there is a section specifically on LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®).

Once you realise how many people are embedding LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® in their academic practice, you might start wondering how you can use it in your own HE context. A survey of literature and first hand experiences show that LSP is being used for exploring identity (what does it meant to be a teacher?), pressing needs (how can we motivate learning? Become more sustainable?), facing new challenges (what does generative AI mean for my future?), learning the subject, demonstrating knowledge and its gaps, developing skills, assessing situations and critically reflecting, communication and relationships, and so much more. LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® can be used to explore any topic, as long as it is a complex one, to which there is no single or straightforward answer. To be able to use it yourself, you only need to ensure you have the following; a receptive educational environment in which you are free to incorporate the method, the openness and imagination to think through how to use it, and then the skills to do so appropriately and effectively.

Turning to the many examples of how others have used the method will help inspire your own decision making. On the LEGO® and LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® page of my website you will find links and resources on different ways to use LSP. These include my commissioned report for the Higher Education Academy in the UK and two open source editions of LEGO® for University Learning – publications produced by Professor Chrissi Nerantzi of Leeds University and me. The first of these – Inspiring Academic Practice in HE introduces you to the principles and practices of the method and its use for academic practice and development. It is embellished with a great many brief prompts for activities to be used within an LSP workshop, and case studies of use across diverse disciplines. The second of these– Online, Offline and Elsewhere – focusses on using LSP in remote learning situations as well as face to face. Both editions include wide ranging examples of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® use in different countries.

Sometimes, aspiring users of LSP are unsure it will work in their discipline. In answer I refer them to the three things I listed earlier. As long as these are in place, LSP will work in any discipline. If, however, you still can’t see how LSP might fit your academic context, then turning to examples elsewhere that appeal may be a way to break the stalemate. There is not enough space to illustrate LSP use in every discipline, however, to make the point selectively, here are three journal articles from very different subject areas; Nathalie Benesova on LSP in management education, Richard Shipway and Holly Henderson looking at leisure, education, mental health and wellbeing and LSP and Theresa Quinn et al combining LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® and positive psychology. As you read more about the use of LSP across HE disciplines, you will start to spot recurrent elements and features of the method. You will also come to understand that, discipline notwithstanding, making models is a means to deeper conversation and adaptable thinking, not the end goal of each activity.

So you have read up on how LSP came to be, checked out who is using it in the sector, wondered about putting it into practice and pondered its fit within your subject area. You might also want to know if LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® can be used to explore concepts within or across disciplines. Graham Barton, from the University of the Arts London, and I used it successfully to explore the concepts of space in museum education. We also ran numerous workshops with postgraduate students, examining their feelings of ‘stuckness in learning’, building and reflecting upon blockages and obstacles, and identifying ways forward to address these, individually and with their peers. We also produced a paper on our experiences, looking at the relationship between LSP and educational theories such as Mayer and Land’s (2003) framework for considering threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Threshold concepts, if the term is unfamiliar, refers to concepts, which, once a student has grasped them, unlock their understanding of a subject and are keys to progression. In our collaboration, these were things like gravity in physics, semiotics in English literature, ergonomics in engineering, and infection in medicine.

Educational, and other theories, we (and so have many other academics, including its founders) have discovered, combine well with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® use. This may be to explore the theory itself, or a subject, issue or question, or even the LSP method itself. On our LSP in HE facilitator training course we often refer to Appreciative Inquiry, among other theoretical approaches.  In LEGO® for University Learning: Online, Offline and Elsewhere, mentioned earlier,  Caitlin Kight and Holly Henderson combined LSP with Wenger’s Communities of Practice theory. Florence Dujardin and Rebecca Thomas brought LEGO® figures together with photovoice, a visual participatory research method photovoice. Harvey Humphrey and Hazel Marzetti explored the academic development of queer early career researchers. (Elsewhere, I and other trained facilitators have also worked with doctoral students in many different guises, from induction to examination, using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®). Other contributors looked at how LSP could explore contemporary academic buzzwords, like learning gain (Alan Wheeler) or qualities such as resilience (Susannah Quinsee).  If theories of play appeal to you, you might also like the section in my book The Value of Play in HE which focuses Brian Sutton-Smith’s seminal work on the rhetorics of play. I explore these rhetorics in the contexts of play in university in general, and LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. The book is open access and can be downloaded here.

Other examples combine teaching and learning and scholarly/research-based enquiry. The link to How It All Began, shared earlier in this article, takes you to a special edition of the International Journal of Applied Management and Research, dedicated to the scholarly use of LSP. Topics include leadership, exploring strengths, emotional work in doctoral education, teaching referencing and enabling learning gain in professional actor training. This special edition, although rooted in management education, gives you an idea of the breadth, flexibility and variety of LSP use. To illustrate this versatility and difference, Professor David Gauntlett’s indepth consideration of LEGO® and LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® as tools for cultural change is an illuminating read. He has spent many years working closely with the LEGO® group on research projects using both the materials and the method, and authored the 2010 open source guide to LSP.

I could keep going, but it is impossible to give the full extent of the ways in which LSP is being used in HE – without extending a short article into an interminably long one.  I am conscious, in bringing this piece to a close that I have left out so much. Through the links I have provided I hope you will be able to follow threads that interest you and find a great deal more to help you build your own academic practice with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. In addition, I hope these illustrations have given you a sense of the breadth, depth and versatility of the method for advanced learning.

Professor Alison James.
March, 2024


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